This is a guest post from Karin Blak, a therapist with over 15 years of training and experience in helping people overcome issues such as anxiety, including running training workshops for young people and those with pastoral care responsibilities such as teachers. Regular readers of the blog will also know that Karin is my wife, and I may be biased, but I think she’s written a really useful and informative piece on an issue that’s concerning many academics and their universities at the moment. If you want to get in touch with Karin to ask about training workshops that she offers, or to follow up on any of this, click on that link to her web site or drop me a line.
Listening to and reading about the issues students in higher education have, anxiety seems to be on the rise. I do wonder whether it is more likely that, with developments in psychology and therapy, we are better able to accept that there is such a condition as “anxiety” and are aware of how to spot it, rather than blaming shyness or laziness. But whatever the source of this rise, we need to consider how academics can help students with anxiety.
Anxiety is not a disability, but it is a dis-abler. It is a fear based condition that increases if it is treated with too much empathy. For example, if we allow students to not participate in group activities because of anxiety, we are being too empathic and instead of helping the student, as was our intention, we empower the condition. So if too much empathy is a bad thing, what can we do to help? To answer this question we need to understand what anxiety actually is.
Anxiety stems from our prehistoric ancestors who had an innate strategy to detect and survive threats to their lives. With the help of adrenaline certain abilities would be strengthened, such as strength, speed or numbness. Their bodies would shut down all but the most important functions they needed for these actions. This is also known as fight, flight freeze, or fall (pretend to be dead). Once the danger was over, the body would return to normal.
We still innately possess this ability to detect danger and our bodies tend to react in the same way. This is still important for our survival, though at times it can stop us from achieving our potential. If this ability is activated in situations that do not threaten our lives, but where we feel uncomfortable or lack confidence, we will feel like running away, lose our words, our pulse will increase, we might begin to sweat, and ultimately we will enter into a state of panic.
Social encounters, presenting information to groups, taking part in discussions and debates all activate anxiety for someone who has been fine tuned to this strategy. As part of developing knowledge, experience and maturity students in higher education are encouraged to partake in all of these experiences.
Almost like being possessed, extreme anxiety will effectively shut down any capabilities a student has and replace them with noise and undermining messages. At the same time if the student is allowed not to participate, the anxiety is likely to get worse and anxiety will be controlling the student. It is a cycle that the student will probably know really well but perhaps not be completely conscious of.
The tricky thing is that anxious students believe that anxiety is an integral part of who they are. They have lived with it for most of their lives and many have not had help. To feel anxiety so intensely will stop the most capable student from succeeding and academic staff will play a role in that failure if anxiety is treated like a disability.
For a student with anxiety, the most supportive action by lecturers would be to enable participation in classes.
Some suggestions for action:
- Referring the student to the university’s counselling services is a must. Counsellors have special training in working with anxiety and should be able to provide coping strategies while the underlying reasons are worked with.
- Talk with the student one-to-one and decide what they are going to say or do in an upcoming session. Make it a short spoken sentence or piece of work initially, even if it is only to agree with something that is said in a seminar for instance, or give them a question to ask after a lecture. Let them know that you are there to support them through this. Rehearsing the words with them will prepare the brain for participation, and if coached to participate it will be the first step in externalising anxiety rather than letting it rule the present and future life of the student.
- After the session, follow this up one-to-one with affirmation so the student can see that they are capable, that they did the right thing, and that they coped.
- Refer the student to the following two websites:
MIND’s website has reliable information to aid understanding of anxiety and how to help, as well as self-help. While it is important for academic staff to understand a condition that is affecting a growing number of today’s students, it is equally important for the students living with anxiety to be made aware of this free, valuable source of help:
Get-Self-Help is an approved Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) website which is another resource for people living with anxiety and it’s also free:
It is worth academics familiarising themselves with the information on here too so that they have a good understanding of the situation and can be of optimum help to students who live with anxiety.
The above advice will not apply to all students with anxiety. For example, if anxiety is secondary to a primary condition such as bipolar or a personality disorder, then different coping strategies need to be considered and working closely with student support services would be a recommendation. Likewise, depression is often caused by anxiety as anxiety has a tendency to isolate an individual and destroy self-esteem. Seeking professional help is again recommended.
We all feel anxious sometimes. I used to accept invites to social events and as time drew closer I would end up cancelling. It hasn’t completely gone away, but I know what anxiety is up to and can resist the temptation to dive into the overwhelming feelings it’s presenting me with.
I know of academics with vast experience of presenting their topic to large groups of students and peers, who still feel like running away before they go on stage. People who have studied their subject in minute detail and still struggle to find the words for what they want to say..…sometimes, only sometimes, not all the time, because they too have stopped listening to the voice of anxiety.
To get to the point of being able to manage anxiety, help is needed. Training, therapy, self-help, CBT, whatever suits the individual, is a great way of getting to know and control this monster, but most of all it takes support from people around them, including academics.
Ultimately facing the fear and doing it anyway is the only cure, and Susan Jeffers’ book of the same name is still a top seller when it comes to managing an anxious life. University academics are in the perfect position to help change a student’s life, not just by imparting your knowledge and skills, but in the support you can provide to your anxious students.